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Expert Alert

As the dangers of 'bath salts' take center stage, U of M researcher explains the dangerous evolution of synthetic drugs

June 28, 2012

A series of drug-fueled crimes across the country has reignited the discussion around the dangers of synthetic drugs – specifically “bath salts” – and have called the legality of selling the drugs over-the-counter directly into question.

The drug, which affects the human brain much like methamphetamine, is extremely dangerous but complicated to legislate because the drug is rarely created the same way.  To prosecute users or dealers under analog drug laws would require an examination of every specific bath salt product.

An expert who can speak on the creation, effects and dangers of synthetic narcotics is:

David Ferguson, Ph.D., professor and director of graduate studies in the University of Minnesota’s School of Pharmacy and creator of the popular DOA (Drugs of Abuse) course.

“Bath salts” or “Plant Food” are common nicknames for a class of synthetic drugs with effects similar to methamphetamine but are often formulated using synthetically modified cathinones, such as methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV). Cathinone is a potent stimulant derived from the natural product khat and is a well-known illegal drug of abuse.

Despite some of their “natural” ingredients, bath salts still target the brain’s dopamine and norepinephrine transport systems in the same way as methamphetamine. The unpredictable potency, purity and toxicity levels of the products make them volatile and dangerous, especially to teenagers and college students.

“Because of the way bath salts are made, the chemical compounds vary drastically from product to product,” Ferguson said. “Using a gram from one brand can be a very different experience than using a gram of another, because the second type might be even fifty or a hundred times more potent.”

According to Ferguson there are a number of other concerns around bath salt use:

“Drug users switching to bath salts need a higher dose to achieve the same high,” said Ferguson.  “They end up using more bath salts, creating a buildup of the drug in the body. The user can then experience a ‘superman effect,’ allowing them to feel superhuman strength, avoid pain and act aggressively.”

Experts and political leaders are continuing to push for better policing of these drugs. Bans are being enacted in several states, including Minnesota. The FDA has banned substances containing MDPV and comparable base drugs, but only temporarily. Congress and FDA officials are currently investigating the effectiveness and necessity of a permanent ban on these substances.

To schedule an interview with Ferguson, contact Caroline Marin, 612-624-5680, or Miranda Taylor, 612-626-2767,

Expert Alert is a service provided by the University News Service. Delivered regularly, Expert Alert is designed to connect university experts to today’s breaking news and current events. For an archive and other useful media services, visit Views expressed by experts do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Minnesota.

Tags: Academic Health Center

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